a listener-friendly German accent

2010-06-29

I’ve been having lots of fun chatting to people in German so far. The more I chat, the more I find holes in my vocabulary, but I can usually work around them. A lot of the time, I can say the word in English and people know it, even if they can’t converse much in English.

Since I’ve been here, almost everyone has been really enthusiastic about speaking to me in German. I think one part of this is my accent, since most people can’t place my native language. The Germans seem to think I’m Swiss, while the Austrians think I’m German. At least that’s their initial impression, until I start stumbling for words, and then they get this weird look on their face and ask me where I’m from.

When I speak, I try to use one of Benny‘s tips and smile a lot. If I were frowning and stumbling for words, then people might want to switch to English to make it easier, but if you smile and have a good time while stumbling for words, then it all works out and everyone continues in German. Smile and laugh while you say “sorry, I’m trying to improve my German” and everyone will be happy to help you out and compliment you.

There are times when the accent works against me, since people think I’m better than I am. I’ve had some people start using a bunch of local slang or dialect on me, so I have to tell them to speak clearly. I got pulled over by an Austrian cop last night while riding the wrong way down a confusing one-way street, and he started explaining my infraction with all these official sounding words until I said “woah woah, I’m a foreigner, slow down”. But at least he understood everything I said :)

Developing a listener-friendly accent requires a lot of listening. You also should have some knowledge about the physical production of the sounds, so that you can understand, for example, which part of your mouth should be used to make a German “R” (which seems to be a real problem for native English speakers). Some accent problems come in when you try and substitute one of your own language’s sounds for a letter in a word that is actually a different sound in the target language.

Particularly for English speakers here, if you try and say some German words using an English R and L sound, then the result will be confusing for the German listeners. If you can’t do the common back-of-the-tongue German R, then at least try to do a tip-of-the-tongue rolling R like russian or spanish, and people here seem to get that a bit easier. There are some native accents in southern Germany that use this rolling R more often than the back-of-the-tongue variety.

For a lot of English speakers, I think the R will come much easier once you’ve mastered the various sounds used for “ch”. The easiest is perhaps best described as the sound that a hissing goose makes. For those of you who’ve encountered an angry goose defending its young, you’ll recognize the noise I mean. They open their beaks wide, so the sound is clearly not a tip-of-the-tongue “ssssss”, but something else. This helps visualize the human equivalent, which is where the back of your tongue goes really close to the top of the back of your mouth, to make a “hhhhh” hissing sound. You might also try to visualize an angry cat hissing, which is the same sort of open-mouth idea. Practice making this sound to yourself for a while, and then you’ll be able to say “ich” properly, instead of the common mistake of saying “itch” or “ish” (which are both typical English front-of-the-mouth sounds). Also notice that in most cases, this “ch” is not like the harder Arabic noise…there’s no vibrating or spit-gargling. Don’t overdo it. Usually it’s very “clean” and smooth.

Once you can say “ch” properly, then you’re ready to move on to a good “r”. The sound is articulated in the same general area, although to me it feels slightly different. Try to start out by making a “ch” hiss, and then add some voicing to it. To make it work properly you’ll have to make a slight movement more towards the back of the mouth I think, but at least that’ll get you started in the right general area.

This R sound gets used at the beginning of words and after another consonant (like in the words “Rad” and at the beginning of “Trockner”). Keep in mind that German words ending in R don’t use the same sound. You can’t just use the same phoneme for every occurance of the letter R. At the end of words like “Trockner”, the “er” part sounds more like just “ah” with no clear “R” sort of sound (to my ears, anyway). If you start pronouncing the first R in “Trockner” the same as the last R, then I think you’ll start to sound more French or something.

Also, again I should stress that in most cases I don’t hear any sort of really hard R. It’s not usually a “rolling” thing at the back, and there’s no Klingon / Arabic vibrations. Try to make it soft and smooth. The number one rule is to listen a lot. Pick an audiobook or some other audio content that’s at least 15 – 30 minutes long, and practice listening for all the “R” sounds. Really listen hard to what sounds they’re making, and what sounds they’re NOT making. Pick one sound at a time to focus on, and just try to hear all of them without making too much effort to understand the actual words or content.

Another one to listen for is the German “L” sound. I might actually characterize this as more of a “European” L sound, since it seems to occur in French and Italian as well. It’s notoriously difficult for English speakers to grasp the difference between and English L and a German/French/Italian L, so make sure you listen carefully.

It’s even quite hard for me to describe the difference. I’m sure it’s an amusing scene here, as I sit in my friend’s kitchen in Vienna going “LLL” “lll” “LLL” “lll” trying to figure out what the heck my tongue is doing. It feels to me that the English L is more “closed”, with the back of the tongue squeezing closer to the back of the mouth (example: the word “ball”), making it a bit more nasal perhaps (“velarization” is the technical term), whereas the German/Italian/French L feels more “open” with easier airflow ability out the mouth.

As a decent approximation, try making an “awww” sound, and then slowly moving only the tip of your tongue up to touch just behind the teeth. While doing this, concentrate on making it an “awww” sound, and don’t think about making L sounds. If you unconsciously think too much about making it an L sound, you might automatically move the back of your tongue too, making it a velarized “dark L” from English. To make his new L sound, you have to retrain your mental autopilot.

Don’t forget to listen! Listen to hours of audio, and listen to yourself when you practice talking. If you have a transcript and some audio for it, then work on it in sections where you listen to a short section over and over again (maybe 20 to 50 times) to get it firmly in your head, and then try to repeat it many times while listening carefully to yourself.

I’ve ignored a lot of the subtleties here, so don’t complain too hard. This has been mostly an attempt to get the beginners up to speed a bit so they don’t sound so obviously like a typical English speaker. What I would love to hear from people, actually, is what other sounds give away a native English speaker when they speak German…any further suggestions?


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